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William Bullitt, Page 3

Bullitt’s analysis in these 1943 memos and letters was, according to Robert Nisbet, a “matchless treatise on Soviet geopolitics, diplomatic and military history, and highly probable annexations of eastern European countries after the war.”80 He was, wrote David Fromkin, “the first within the [U.S.] government to focus on the Russian threat.”81 But it was to no avail. FDR, though acknowledging the logic and reasoning underlying Bullitt’s analysis, instead acted on his “hunch” that “Stalin is not that kind of man.” “I think,” Roosevelt told Bullitt, “that if I give [Stalin] everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”82 Bullitt attempted to persuade the tired, sick and war-weary president that in dealing with Stalin he was not negotiating with a British Duke, but rather with “a Caucasian bandit, whose only thought when he got something for nothing was that the other fellow was an ass.” FDR replied that he was going to play his “hunch.”83

Bullitt’s relationship with FDR steadily eroded as a result of Bullitt’s involvement in 1943 in the effort to end Sumner Welles’ career in government. Bullitt resigned his position with the Navy Department and made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Philadelphia. After unsuccessfully trying to enlist in the U.S. army, Bullitt joined the Free French forces under General Charles de Gaulle in May 1944. That same month he wrote an article for Life magazine entitled “The World From Rome,” wherein he portrayed “western Europe and Western civilization [as] threatened by hordes of invaders from the East.” The Italians, including the Pope, explained Bullitt, greatly feared that after the war British and American forces would hastily withdraw from Europe, thereby leaving them “at the mercy of the Soviet Union.” As he had in his secret letters and memos to FDR, Bullitt now publicly called for the formation of an armed, integrated, and democratic Europe to prevent Soviet domination of the continent.84

Bullitt landed in southern France with Free French forces under General de Lattre de Tassigny in August 1944. He remained with that unit until the end of the war. The French awarded Bullitt the Croix de Guerre with palm and the Legion of Honor.85

After the war and his return to the United States, Bullitt attempted to obtain a position with the Truman administration, but nothing was offered to him. He had burned too many bridges in Washington. He had been publicly critical of FDR’s diplomacy toward the end of the war; a policy that the Truman administration initially followed. Bullitt decided, therefore, to set down his thoughts about U.S.-Soviet relations in a book published in 1946 under the title, The Great Globe Itself.86

The Great Globe Itself ranks with James Burnham’s The Struggle for the World as an early, comprehensive analysis of what was at stake in the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, Bullitt was critical of FDR’s diplomacy with Stalin at the end of the Second World War. “Instead of attempting to fill the ‘power vacuum’ in Europe by the creation of a federation of independent, democratic states, [Roosevelt] chose to gamble on his ability to convert Stalin from Soviet imperialism to democratic collaboration.”87 FDR, at the time of his negotiations with Stalin, wrote Bullitt, was a “tired President,” and despite his legendary political skills, he could not “appease the unappeasable.”88 FDR, Bullitt explained, misunderstood Stalin, Soviet communism and Russian history. “Few errors more disastrous,” wrote Bullitt of his former friend, “have ever been made by a President of the United States….”89

The sources of Soviet imperialism, wrote Bullitt, “lie deep in Russian history” and in “Communist doctrine.”90 Russian imperialism began, Bullitt explained, under Tsar Ivan the Terrible. He started the Russians “on the career of conquest which made them rulers of one-sixth of the earth’s surface.” Bullitt detailed the long, slow but steady process by which Russia expanded its control over the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Crimea, Siberia and “the northern shores of the Pacific Ocean.” Peter the Great and Catherine the Great sought to expand westward toward the Baltic and Black Seas and Poland. By the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Bullitt explained, Russia had “conquered 168 different peoples and tribes.”91

When Lenin seized power in November 1917, Bullitt wrote, he transformed Russia from an authoritarian monarchy based on “divine rule” to a totalitarian state based on the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Lenin’s government ruled by force and terror to a greater extent than had the Tsars. Lenin’s foreign policy, explained Bullitt, was as expansionist as the Tsar’s, but far more dangerous because of communism’s claim to universality. Moscow as the “Third Rome” or as the protector of the Slavic peoples was replaced by Moscow as the center of world revolution.

Bullitt explained that communist doctrine “requires that the aim of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, and all other Communist-controlled governments, should be to establish Communist dictatorship throughout the earth.” That goal, he wrote, “is unchanging and unchangeable.”92 One only had to read the relevant works of Lenin and Stalin, which Bullitt quoted, and observe how communist Russia had conducted its foreign and diplomatic relations from 1917 to 1946, to understand what motivated Soviet leaders.

In a brilliant and prescient analysis of Soviet Cold War strategy and tactics, Bullitt wrote:

[N]o nation lies outside the scope of [Soviet] ambitions….Wherever the Soviet Union can advance with impunity it advances. Wherever aggression is difficult or dangerous, it stops. Its appetite is unlimited. Its behavior resembles on a mammoth scale that of the amoeba….The amoeba constantly extends portions of its protoplasm, and if one touches something digestible, the amoeba flows around it and digests it; but if an indigestible grain of grit is encountered the protoplasm withdraws, and the amoeba extends another bit of protoplasm seeking a fresh victim in another direction. Similarly, from the nucleus of Moscow the Soviet Government constantly tests areas around the Soviet Union in search of victims. If it encounters serious resistance, it withdraws and tries another area. If it finds a digestible victim, it flows around it and digests it.93

There can be no permanent peace with the Soviet Union because they regard peace treaties and non-aggression agreements “as instruments which they sign merely because at some moment they consider it in their interest to sign them.” They sign agreements, Bullitt continued, “with every intention of breaking such agreements when they feel strong enough to do so with impunity.”94

The only way to prevent Soviet expansion, Bullitt advised, was to constantly confront it with superior force; to adopt a policy of what Bullitt’s former aide, George F. Kennan, would one year later call “containment.”

Bullitt’s analysis in The Great Globe Itself was informed by an understanding of fundamental geopolitics. Bullitt noted that the “Soviet Union today controls even more of Europe than [Halford] Mackinder envisaged” in his brilliant geopolitical work, Democratic Ideals and Reality. Bullitt even quoted Mackinder’s famous warning to the peacemakers at Versailles: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”95 Like Mackinder, and the American geopolitical theorists, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas Spykman, Bullitt compared the Soviet threat to previous attempts at continental hegemony by Spain’s Philip II, France’s Louis XIV and Napoleon I, and Germany’s Wilhelm I and Hitler. “Soviet control of this vast eastern and central European area,” warned Bullitt, “constitutes a terrible military threat to Western Europe and to Great Britain, and ultimately to the United States.”96 We cannot safely retreat to the Western Hemisphere, Bullitt explained, because the Soviet Union, in control of Mackinder’s World-Island, would “build up such a preponderance of force against us that our destruction will be certain.” The only way to effectively confront the Soviet geopolitical threat, Bullitt believed, was for the United States and Great Britain to form and lead a “democratic federation of European states.” “If the remaining European democracies remain separated,” he wrote, “they will be swallowed one by one by the Soviet Union.”97

Bullitt’s proposed policy vis-a-vis the Soviets also, like James Burnham’s proposed policy in his masterful Cold War trilogy, had an offensive component. The ultimate goal of U.S. policy, according to Bullitt, “should be to free all the states of central and eastern Europe and the Balkans from Soviet domination.”98

In The Great Globe Itself, Bullitt once again, in the opinion of his biographers, “exhibited…a remarkable ability to ‘see the future.’”99 The Cold War turned out to be a systemic conflict just as Bullitt predicted. The Soviets throughout the Cold War acted very much like the amoeba of Bullitt’s analogy. The United States formed a federation of democratic states, NATO, three years after Bullitt proposed it in his book. The liberation of Eastern and Central Europe, which Bullitt said should be the ultimate aim of the United States, became part of U.S. policy during the latter years of the Cold War.

Beginning with the crisis over northern Iran and the issue of preventing Soviet domination of Greece and Turkey, the Truman administration’s stance toward the Soviets stiffened. The policy of containment, first publicized in George Kennan’s “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947, was consistent with policies advocated by Bullitt in 1943. In fact, Bullitt had a Cold War disciple in Truman’s government in the person of James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy and the country’s first Secretary of Defense.

But Bullitt believed that Truman was not doing enough to save China from a communist takeover. The Soviet Union, he wrote in Life, was “striving to reduce China to the status of a satellite….using the Chinese Communists as instruments of …power politics.” In November 1947, Bullitt joined several former U.S. ambassadors in calling for “military and economic aid” to Chiang Kai-shek.100 In October 1949, China fell to the communists under Mao Tse-tung, who soon thereafter signed a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union. Bullitt, who by then had become a Republican, joined the GOP chorus in blaming the Truman administration for “losing” China. He soon became a full-fledged member of the “China lobby” that advocated U.S. aid to the Nationalist government on Taiwan in an effort to recapture the mainland from the communists. He subsequently criticized the truce that ended the Korean War, agreeing with General Douglas MacArthur that “there is no substitute for victory.” Bullitt was also an early proponent of U.S. economic and military assistance to South Vietnam, seeing the former French colony as a bulwark against communist expansion in Asia.101

Bullitt’s public career for all intents and purposes was over. The Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower had no place for him on its foreign policy team. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, initially espoused a policy of “liberation” or “rollback” of the Soviet Empire, but settled for a continuation of Truman’s containment policy.

On February 15, 1967, while the United States was in the middle of another war to prevent communist expansion in Asia, William Bullitt died. He had been diagnosed with chronic leukemia many years earlier.

Bullitt had led an extraordinary life. He was a participant in some of the most important world events during the first half of the twentieth century. He had negotiated with Lenin after the First World War; dined and drank with Stalin in the Kremlin; served his country in two very important ambassadorial posts in the 1930s as the world lurched towards war; launched the careers of some of our nation’s finest diplomats; telephoned his friend, the longest serving U.S. President in history, to inform him about the beginning of the Second World War; acted as the personal representative of the president to the Middle East and Africa during the Second World War; discussed war policy with Churchill and de Gaulle; and became a vocal anti-communist critic of U.S. policy during the early years of the Cold War.

As a diplomat and presidential advisor, however, Bullitt deserves to be remembered most for his prophetic and courageous warnings to FDR in 1943 about the emerging Soviet threat to the West. In 1943, the structure of the postwar world had not yet begun to take shape. There was still time to align our military strategy with our professed goals of liberating as much of Europe as possible and thereby forestalling or at least lessening the opportunities for Soviet mischief after the war. There may still have been a Cold War if the president had followed Bullitt’s advice in 1943, but the Soviet Union would have been in a much less favorable geopolitical position to wage that war, and the lives of millions of Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks and others in central and eastern Europe who suffered under Soviet domination for more than forty years would have been dramatically improved.


Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed. Penguin Classics, 1990. ISBN: 0140182934

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